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  • Chris ORourke

Dublin Theatre Festival 2017: King of the Castle

Seana Kerslake and Seán McGinley in King of the Castle. Image by Robbie Jack


It’s A Man’s World

With its sexually explicit themes, and its unswerving indictment of Irish masculinity, Eugene McCabe’s, award winning “King of the Castle,” courted moral outrage and controversy when first produced in a holy Catholic Ireland of 1964. Yet today, over fifty years later, it’s once controversial themes have lost much of their impact. Indeed, the current revival by Druid, the first in almost thirty years, sees “King of the Castle” feeling more distant than familiar in a contemporary Ireland. If it offers a look at our recent history, it’s one that’s not particularly engaging. With its themes drained of much of their power, only its characters and narrative remain to engage. Which the former succeed in doing admirably, courtesy of some sterling performances, the latter far less so.

If it’s a man’s world in “King of the Castle,” it’s a grey man’s world where an objectified woman functions to provide the only splash of colour. As well as serve tea, make meals, and produce babies. But babies are proving to be a problem for the McAdams, and two out of three ain’t good enough for Scober, or his wife only half his age, Tressa. The fading king of his much loved castle, Scober wants an heir, and also imagines his wife wants a younger lover. For the impotent Scober’s not a man, Tressa’s already told him so, and Scober suspects the men in the bar think much the same thing. Jemmy Maguire constantly intimates as much, making an offer to Tressa that gets Scober thinking. A young man to satisfy his wife and deliver him an heir. But will it be enough to restore his reputation in the eyes of the other men?

Built on a central premise of an older man, his younger wife, and the young man he gives permission for her to sleep with, “King of the Castle” has all the hallmarks of a gloomy, guilt ridden, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, presented Irish Catholic style: all griping and no groping, and with no sexual charge whatsoever. It quickly feels dated, as does its sexual politics. While “King of the Castle” undoubtedly challenged long established and unquestioned notions of the nature and legitimacy of masculinity, today its seems set apart from a conversation that has long since moved on beyond such unquestioned and tolerated certainties. Its representation of an uncomplicated and reductive, one size fits all masculinity from the 1960’s, with its religiously driven, patriarchal power structures, has “King of the Castle” feeling like a historical curio from a forgotten Catholic Ireland. A curio that feminism has successfully challenged and deconstructed so often in the intervening years. “King of the Castle” might talk of apples, pups, eggs, and harvests, but efforts to position this as highlighting feminist concerns with the designated societal role accorded to women on the basis of their fertility, is a bit of a stretch. Indeed, “King of the Castle” speaks less to those legitimate concerns, instead using notions of fertility to highlight the inability of the so-called elder ‘bull’ to inseminate the so-called younger ‘cow’ while the rest of the youthful herd snigger behind his back. As such, while there are moments which arguably make “King of the Castle” relevant to a 21st century Ireland, overall it just doesn’t deliver in this regard, and the whole strains to convince of its contemporary relevance.

While Francis O’Connor’s clever set design beautifully captures something of the mood and history of "King of the Castle," sightlines, from either edge of the auditorium, often prove problematic, especially with a generous amount of the action happening close to the wings of the Gaiety stage. With director Garry Hynes keeping things moving at a solemn pace, coupled with a near funereal score by Stephen McKeon, “King of the Castle” is very much positioned in dragging, tragic tones which the action doesn’t quite equate with. Throughout, Seán McGinley does a stellar job as the older Scober. If it’s hard to see the power of a King in this faded man losing out to a younger world, Scober's powerlessness and fading with age is something McGinley captures perfectly. Due in no small measure to a sterling performance by Marty Rea, whose sneering, leering, and jeering Jemmy Maguire highlights the power dynamics at the heart of “King of the Castle,” where men are defined by the approval, or ridicule, of other men. Men like the constant sidekick Joady Conlon, superbly played by John Olohan, or the hyena laughing Tommy Hayes, by an equally superb Peter Daly. Ryan Donaldson as the lover in waiting, Matt Lynch, does well throughout, as does Seana Kerslake as Tressa, a woman serving as property in a man’s world. But the chemistry never quite sparks between the two. Nor does the relationship between Scober and Tressa, with their much-vaunted love never really being evident. Indeed Kerslake has a demanding task throughout, having very little to work with in this all male universe for much of the time. But when allowed to give voice to her own thoughts, Kerslake delivers some powerful moments.

Showing no real sexual energy, or connection, between its primary characters, “King of the Castle” sparks on occasion, but it never really ignites. At one point Matt Lynch says, “they’re watching,” looking at the men gathered behind him at the bar. Scober’s reply, “when they’re not, you’re nobody,” encapsulates the primary concern that lies at the heart of “King of the Castle.” Men watching men, judging men. In this capacity, “King of the Castle” serves as a useful reminder of the basic dynamics operating at the heart of masculinity. If such dynamics aren't completely eradicated, contemporary conversations on Irish masculinity have moved on to encompass other concerns, and other masculine dynamics, courtesy of rigorous feminist interrogations. Conversations which "King of the Castle,” along with other works such as Tom Murphy’s A Whistle in the Dark, helped get started, and for which they should always be commended.

“King of the Castle” by Eugene McCabe, produced by Druid Theatre Company, runs at The Gaiety Theatre as part of Dublin Theatre Festival 2017 until October 15th

For more information, visit The Gaiety Theatre or Dublin Theatre Festival 2017

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